Vern: The scuba diving at Tulamben in the north-east of Bali was spectacular. We stayed in a dive resort either past its prime or not there yet, but sort of cheated on them and dived with a cheaper outfit across the road. Our Dive Master was named Muddy (though the visibility was anything but - dah doef tish) and couldn't have been more relaxed. He didn't speak much English, didn't ask for our PADI cards, nor did he blink an eye at stuffing two adults into childrens' wetsuits, but he knew the dive sites well and was very good at finding interesting things to look at in holes and under overhangs. The porters have a tough job though and trudge down to the beach with one tank on a shoulder and another on their head!
The USS Liberty was a World War II cargo ship which was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942. It is 120m long and now lies on its side 30m offshore. It is absolutely covered in brightly coloured soft coral and feels like a Hong Kong of the distant future with neon traffic lined up on highways and bi-ways stacked 30 layers deep. Thousands of different species of tropical fish, all dressed in tints from the day-glo range, have made the enormous hull their home and rarely could I make out the ship's original features; a port hole here, a faucet there perhaps.
One of a handful of moray eels poked its stern underbite out of a dark hole, like a dastardly old neighbour peeking through the porch door waiting to yell at the first neighbourhood kid who trespasses on his lawn to fetch a baseball. And Muddy found a purple spotted ray quietly lying in the reef like a discarded tennis racket on a toy pile. Its purple spots were akin to the fuzzy dark patches you see when you stand up too quickly. Actually disco purple was quite a dominant colour down there and these reef dwellers would fit right in in the Rhodes University stands at Trivarsity sporting event.
The next dive site, called "Drop Off," is an immense rocky outcrop which starts as a little stoney mound above the surface and plunges down into an abyss of deep dark water - we went down to 28 metres and it was still full of activity with no sign of its base. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed as if someone had decided to gift wrap a mountain, using every patterned scrap they could get hold of, and then sink it. Huge violet fan coral, like skeletal butterfly wings, fluttered in slow motion and Andrea teased a giant clam into slamming shut (we'll be back in 50 years for our pearl). Above us we could see a large squall of tuna swimming in a frenzied infinity loop, only to be trawled by local fisherman, and once again down below was an astounding variety of fish including an ingeniously camouflaged stone fish and a spiny battalion of lion fish. Andrea's jaw fell open after the dive when I told her that these are deadly - "But I got so close!"
We spent our meal times at one of two cheap places we'd found. The first a little shack whose waitress-cook won us over by keeping the Tim Tam chocolate cookies we'd bought from her for dessert in her freezer for two hours so they'd be firm and unmelted, and the second a place where we felt very sexy. Not because it was exclusive or patroned by the rich and famous, but because the excitable parakeet opposite the road wolf-whistled at us all through our meal.
We added to our time underwater by snorkelling in the "coral garden" right in front of our resort and had to walk out to the water over large black pebbles, which I overheard a dive coach sell to his client as "a free Balinese foot massage." One morning there was a king cobra amongst the rocks with its hood flared spitting at the resort staff who were hurling rocks at it. My internal voice had to give a hell of a pep talk to get me in the water after that.
Underwater, we were amazed by not only how many fish have evolved to look like coral but by how many corals have evolved to look like fish. One day an underwater Darwin is going to make sense of all this and have us all wowed with 'The Origin of the Feeshies'.
In the anemones I found Nemo, or at least a baby clown fish which I'd attempt to pass off as Nemo had I been the one who lost him. And nearby a most extraordinary shell fish scuttled across the sea bed. It looked like a small lobster but instead of Ferrari red, it was midnight blue with white spots and a yellow tail.
Tulamben is quite far from the Bali airport and the quotes we were given for a private taxi were very high, so instead of taking a cab, on the day we were to fly out, we stood on the road in front of the resort to take our chances with the 'bemos' - the minibuses which the locals use.
A few vehicles blew past, ignoring us entirely, but before we had time to abandon all hope, a little red minibus pulled over for us. The driver got out. Yes he was going our way. "How much?" I asked. To which he grinned like a Chessire cat, rubbed his hands together like a preying mantis (the international gesture for "I'm gonna make some moolah!") and started a conversation with the people in the back of the bus. "That's not a good sign," said Andrea amused by the audacity of his glee. One of the passengers quoted us a fare on the driver's behalf, we countered with half that amount and our offer was accepted (so no doubt we were still getting gouged). The van was already packed full of vendors taking stuff to market, but the driver made some hand gestures and they moved themselves and their things around to just about accommodate us. One guy who gave up his seat for us had to hang out the open door for the journey.
We were dropped at a major transport hub and it took two more bemos to get us to the terminal. We arrived early and by taking minibuses had spent only half what the taxi had quoted us for the journey. Result! The money saved never left Bali, though, because the sneaky chaps take one more handful of cash out of tourist wallets with an exit tax.
Our flight was quite delayed because Air Force One and the planes of other heads of state had departed earlier that day throwing the runway schedule into disarray but eventaully we were on our way and it was bye bye beautiful Bali.